Trying to understand the game of baseball in Japan can seem impossible to the average foreigner. Before experiencing Japanese baseball, or as they call it in Japan, “yakyu” I always thought baseball was played the same everywhere in the world; you have a ball, a bat, four bases, nine guys, and nine innings. Indeed, Japan has all of these. But it possess an additional component. One might describe it as a samurai mentality, where the individual sacrifices everything for the team and never gives up. This samurai quality is called bushido, and Japan has successfully used it to create a style of baseball that is uniquely Japanese.
I’m still trying to fully grasp what baseball means in Japan, so I thought I would share with you my experiences. From elementary school games to professional, and from preparing bento lunch boxes before the sun rises to running laps on dusty fields until dark, baseball in Japan is a different breed.
Months after I graduated college, where I played NCAA baseball, I moved to Japan for a year to teach English at two junior high schools. Within the first week I found myself lured to observe my school’s practice on their all dirt field. It was here where for the first time, I saw for myself one of the dusty back country fields, and begin to understand how a tiny island nation could produce one of the greatest hitters of all time in Ichiro.
Growing up and watching the American League East over the past fifteen years, a sacrifice bunt and a high pitch count was as rare as Fenway Park not selling out. However, I quickly discovered that both of these, along with other differences, are a staple in the Japanese game.
For starters, my junior high school practices ten hours a day in sweltering summer heat. One day, while leaving school early in the evening I noticed the team still taking batting practice. I couldn’t believe it. The team was there when I arrived at eight in the morning for work, and they were still there when I left for home after four in the afternoon. It got me thinking: This is just one team tucked away on a little island off the main island. How many countless other teams are out there across the country practicing all day? It also got me wondering where the school field with the next Darvish, Iwakuma, or Kuroda sweating away in the dust may be located?
A good place to look for the next Japanese import is at the Summer Koshien High School Tournament. Perhaps the word, “tournament” is an understatement. Even after attending three day long festivals where the locals start drinking at eight in the morning, nothing compares to the energy and spirit at Koshien. The place is magical enough to make Walt Disney jealous. And that’s just from a fans perspective.
Here’s a little insight from a players perspective.
A good friend of mine actually won the Summer Koshien championship almost twenty years ago. He tells me it was the greatest achievement of his life. He was eighteen years old at the time. Now, he has a wife and a baby boy. And yet, Koshien was the greatest achievement of his life. That should show you how important this tournament means to people in Japan.
After living in Japan for a year and watching every koshien tournament game broadcasted on TV, it quickly became important to me as well. Fortunately, during my final week in the country, I was able to attend a high school game myself at the hallowed grounds of Koshien.
Let me walk you through my experience. At seven in the morning with a cold bottle of milk tea, I managed to snag the last seat on my train from Kyoto Station. At prime rush hour I transferred train lines at one of the busiest stations in the world, Osaka station. Blast through the loud speakers were instructions about getting to the game. It turns out I wasn’t the only one commuting into Koshien to catch a glimpse of this baseball magic. After a fifteen minute train ride where I was pinned between fans and a bunch of salary men, the doors parted and I joined the flood of fans rushing from the station to the ball park. I took a moment to diverge from the crowd and grab some McDonald’s breakfast to carry into the game and eat at my seat. After all, someone’s got to live up to the American stereotype over in Japan.
It turned out admission to outfield seating was free! With my McDonald’s breakfast in hand and sweat towel wrapped around my neck, I found an empty spot in the bleachers to take in what would turn out to be one of the most memorable games of my life.
The game itself was entertaining, but the bands blasting the schools theme songs, synchronized with official school cheering teams made for an indescribable energy. And I don’t mean a few songs and clapping here and there. The music and cheering was constant. Fans could feel the emotions that were played out on the field. There were fist-pumps, shouting, tears, and bowing all packed into three memorable hours.
The starting pitcher was a sixteen-year-old throwing 94 miles per hour, named Tomohiro Anraku. He undoubtably is the latest to personify the idea of bushido in high school baseball. The young man threw 772 pitches over nine days last spring! Honor, loyalty, dedication, and sacrifice were all display for the world to see the way Japan approaches the game of baseball. A pitcher who hurls five complete games over the course of nine days is considered child abuse to U.S. baseball standards, but in Japan, it’s just part of the game.
Thus, Anraku was the main attraction for the sold out crowd of over 45,000 spectators. At least, he was the main reason why I chose this game to drag my friend along. Here is an excellent article about Anraku from ESPN that garnered international attention because of his extremely high pitch counts and the perception of baseball in Japan. http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/9452014/pitcher-tomohiro-anraku-future-japanese-baseball-espn-magazine
Not only did Anraku live up to the pitching hype, with 183 pitches thrown, but he also hit a three-run home run in extra innings to bring his team within one run of tying the game. Unfortunately, his heroic efforts fell short as, his high school from little Shikoku Island lost to a powerful team from Iwate prefecture.
After the game, both teams rushed over to their respected sides of the field to thank their fans for cheering so loud. After bowing to their fans, the two teams lined up facing each other at home plate. Both teams recognized the high level of sportsmanship and endurance displayed throughout the contest, and on the captains’ words, bowed to each other.
Next, the losing players scooped sacred Koshien dirt from the infield into little containers to be enshrined and cherished for the rest of their lives. As tears dripped of the defeated cheeks these boys, a storm of photographers and television cameras barreled in to record the raw emotion. You couldn’t help but feel sad for the players from Shikoku. It was tough to witness a team fight to the last pitch and lose. It was even harder to watch a sixteen year old labor through 183 pitches amidst intense summer heat, to seemingly only come away with a dirty and sweat soaked jersey. But I have a feeling that bushido attitude on display during that extra inning heart breaker, will be enough to get him back to Koshien next summer where he’ll once again have a chance to reign supreme over all of Japan.
As for baseball in Japan, I have a feeling their unique style of play will not go away anytime soon. In a country that specializes in taking foreign ideas and adapting them to make them work in Japan, like convincing everyone to buy a cake on Christmas from Colonel Sanders at KFC, baseball is just another example of a tradition that may appear to have its roots in foreign soil, but after close inspection, is seen to be uniquely Japanese.